A few months back, outside Publix Supermarket headquarters, where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers conducted a six-day hunger strike, I made inquiries about Francisca.
"Do you know a woman by the name of Franscica Herrera?" I asked a few of the strikers and among the supporters of the coalition's Fair Food campaign camping out along Airport Road. I caught myself a few times asking for Francisca, followed by the obvious explanation of who she was: the mother of Carlitos, the baby without limbs.
Neither of them is easy to forget. Carlitos, for his physical limitations and Francisca, for that permanent smile across her face; that smile that is half youthful joie de vivre and half bewilderment, almost as if the world around her in 2013 was as unfamiliar as it was years ago when she crossed the border.
Ten years ago, at sixteen, Francisca left Huehuetonoc, Mexico, and crossed into the USA along with 19 "chickens|" led by a coyote. They walked the desert for two weeks, slept little, ate less. They walked, trotted, crouched, crawled and ran on command. In silence. In fear. Their hearts bursting with hope and hunger gnawing at their guts.
Two weeks later, maybe more, Francisca arrived in North Carolina, where she picked tomatoes for 12-14 hours a day alongside her husband. When the harvest was over and the soil was done for the year, the couple moved South, looking for work. First, they worked in Fort Myers and when there was nothing left for them to do there, they continued farther south to Immokalee where a produce company hired them as farmhand. At the company labor camp, they shared a trailer, which should have been condemned, with four other people, each of them paid $35 a week, turning a derelict trailer into a cash machine generating the company $840 a month.
Francisca got pregnant while living at the migrant labor camp. So did her neighbors Sostenes and Maria. The three of them got bathed in pesticides while pregnant and the three of them gave birth to extraordinary babies.
Sostenes gave birth to Jesus, a baby boy born with Pierre Robin Syndrome, a condition in which the lower jaw is exceedingly small, set back, and the tongue is pushed to the back of the throat. Baby Jesus was at constant risk of swallowing his own tongue and dying of asphyxiation.
Maria gave birth to an underweight baby boy with no nose, no ears, an immature heart, malfunctioning lungs and underdeveloped genitalia. He was named Jorge, then renamed Violeta, then he/she died.
Francisca gave birth to Carlitos, baby boy without arms or legs
Jesus, Jorge/Violeta, and Carlitos became to be known as the TRES NIÑOS, a name coined by a group of lawyers who initiated a lawsuit against the produce company. Then Sostenes left Immokalee and Maria, understandably, didn't want to be involved in legal procedures. It was just Francisca. A lawyer filed suit, holding her employer liable for medical and hospital costs, lifetime care costs, disability, disfigurement, pain, suffering and mental anguish among other charges.
I didn't talk about the lawsuit back then when I interviewed her and we didn't talk about it either now. My guess is that her lawyer won. She lives in a beautiful house with a double garage and a kitchen with granite counters. Carlitos has a state of the art wheel chair which he operates with his right stump. He is a happy boy; smiley and a bit of a flirt, who doesn't think twice about blowing kisses and winking with abandon.
Are you happy, Francisca? I asked her.
She giggles like a little girl.
"I don't know," she said.
I found Rosa in Thonotosassa, a small community 16 miles north east of Tampa. The trailer park where she lives now is a little jungle of oak trees, their branches heavy with moss. From outside, her trailer looks old and moldy, like it is about to cave in, but inside, the trailer stands as a testament of Rosa’s determination to turn any place into a home. A modest, new vinyl floor has been laid down and on the walls are mismatched pictures in shabby plastic frames.
She covers her mouth with both hands as she opens the door. “It’s you,” she says. “I thought you had forgotten about me.” She pulls me inside the trailer and gives me a long, hard squeeze. She invites me to sit down on a wobbly sofa whose original color I wouldn’t dare to guess and gives me a bottle of water. She looks me up and down and comments on how thin I am, and I can’t tell if it is a compliment or a suggestion to include more fat in my diet.
Rosa has a homemade mask on her face. Bits of lemon stick to her forehead and chin. She tells me it is an old wives recipe to get rid of stains and to give the skin back its youthfulness. And it’s working, she tells me with a chuckle.
I ask her about Camilo. She tells me that he is doing fine, his heart problems are closely monitored and under control; his only problem is the half of his body which the doctors “messed up” when he was a baby. “Remember he just had a weak heart when he went in for surgery?” she asks. I nod. “After the operation, his arm went dead and his little hand curled into a fist and never, ever did he open it again.” A lawyer told her that had she filed a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital soon after the incident, she would have been awarded one million dollars in compensation. “But it’s too late now,” she says. “And in any case, what would I do with the money? Buy my boy a new arm and hand?” she sneers. “These gringo lawyers think you can buy everything with money.”
I give her a copy of Looking for Esperanza, opened in the chapter dedicated to her and Camilo. She looks at it and quietly runs her fingers down the page. “It’s in English,” she says. I apologize, feeling like a cretin. I wonder what it would take to get this thing translated into Spanish, how many more obstacles as an emerging writer I would have to face to get the words in what seems to me the “right” language for it. Rosa sees how embarrassed I am and tells me that she understands enough English to get by and that if she gets stuck reading the book, she’ll ask her American boss to give her a hand.
“What American boss?” I ask. “Are you back in the fields?” She waves her hands in the air. No, of course she is not back in the fields. That type of job is for mules and she is not cut out for it. She cleans houses now. “I’m a maid,” she says and I know that in her eyes, she has moved up the ladder.
A week after thanksgiving, I paid Laura a visit. The house was exactly as it had been a few years back when she took me to work on the strawberry fields. The manicured front yard, the tidy porche with matching rocking chairs and recently-watered plants, the smell of food making its way outside, all proof that Laura still lived in that house.
She opened the door and we held gazes for a few seconds.
"My God, I remember you," she said and asked me in.
She hasn't changed. She is the same woman I met when I was looking for Esperanza: vivacious, witty, with impeccable skin and brawny arms developed by years of work in the fields.
Her husband was in the kitchen finishing his dinner. I apologized for the interruption and offered to come some other time. To no avail. They asked me to stay. He also remembered me, not so much because of the interview he gave me but because Laura used to tell him all about our days together. I'm sure I was the topic of conversation every evening after working during the day with Laura in the fields. The crazy writer who thought she could keep up with Laura. The fool who felt fit enough to withstand the stooping position for hours, the nut case who drove up and down Florida looking for a woman's story.
We had a laugh (at my hopeless lack of agricultural skills), talked about their children (no longer children but grown up men), and between laughs and jokes about Laura's father (the flirt!), I showed Laura the book. I opened it in the chapter titled "Laura" and we hugged.
She hugged me because someone had dimmed her life worthy to be remembered, because a book in English dedicated a whole chapter to her, her family and her story.
I hugged her because every time she took me to the fields, she taught me a lesson of humility, of resilience, of determination and fearlessnes. Because one day at a tomato warehouse in Dover, after hours of stooping over the dizzing conveyors, when I was just about to throw the towel, she cracked a joke about body odor. And we laughed in secret, when the crew leader wasn't looking, and then she cracked another joke and all of us women at the conveyor stopped to laugh, to live, to allow some humanity into the backbraking job of sorting out tomatos for salads they will not taste.